The Voters' Advocate
As leader of Common Cause, Scott Harshbarger wants to make everyone as passionate about government reform as he is
In the summer of 1999, Scott Harshbarger '68 told his children that he was considering a job as president and CEO of Common Cause. They were happy for their father, who seemed energized by the prospect.
There was just one problem. His five children, all in their 20s and 30s, didn't know what Common Cause was.
For Harshbarger, that lack of recognition reinforces his challenge to bring a once thriving organization back to the forefront of recognition and viability. A former district attorney, state attorney general, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Harshbarger was tapped two years ago as the first politician ever to lead Common Cause. It was a dramatic change for an organization that touts its nonpartisan credentials, but change itself was part of the point.
"There comes a time for adjustments within an organization," said Fred Wertheimer '62, former president of Common Cause and current president of Democracy 21, a public policy group in Washington. "You have an evolutionary process, and that was the circumstance that Scott faced when he came in. You're always looking to reach out and build as broad an effort as you can. My sense of what [Common Cause] is doing is to take the core beliefs and philosophy and commitment of the organization and redo it and move it forward."
Founded in 1970 by John Gardner, Common Cause has operated as a watchdog at the local and federal levels, exposing wasteful practices and urging accountability from government officials. In its history, it has helped reform the tax system, establish financial disclosure requirements, restrict gifts to Congress, and block expansion of weapons systems.
Common Cause is best known, however, for its long-standing advocacy of campaign finance reform. While this spring's congressional debate over campaign finance reform gave Common Cause renewed prominence, even some advocates say that the organization has been too closely associated with its signature issue. For anyone associated with Common Cause, campaign finance reform is indeed important, an issue that in fact dominated Harshbarger's agenda during the recent debate over the McCain-Feingold bill. But it should not dominate the agenda of an organization that sees campaign finance reform as only the first step in its ultimate mission, said Harshbarger.
"Even though it was a very important issue, campaign finance reform had become almost the defining issue rather than an example of the reason for Common Cause's origins, that money had taken over and the special interests had overridden the public interest," he said.
Thus, as he worked to ensure the passage of meaningful reform, Harshbarger downplayed the expectation that any single piece of legislation would fix the system. He also worked to draw in the disenfranchised to participate anew--or for the first time--in the system that had alienated them, to instill in others the guiding principle that has defined his career: Public service matters.
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Scott Harshbarger is like Bill Clinton in one specific way. Though chided for a stiff, plodding style in the campaign arena, Harshbarger makes anyone who meets him feel like the most important person in the world. In Common Cause headquarters in Washington, D.C., he storms at a visitor like the football player he used to be at Harvard College. But instead of a block, he throws all his passion, the passion that inspired a near reverence among his employees at the Massachusetts attorney general's office, which he led for eight years. He can--and does--talk about the joy of public service all day. The least interesting thing you do as a public servant, he says, is more interesting than the most interesting thing you do in the private sector.
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